The young man depicted in this portrait, which is datable to the 1590s, is shown in a melancholic attitude which was then fashionable. Melancholy is often expressed in Elizabethan and Jacobean portraiture and this is discussed by Sir Roy Strong in The Tudor and Stuart Monarchy, II, Bury St. Edmunds, 1995, pp. 295-302. The ideas that lie behind this development were imported into England during the 1580s by young gentlmen returning from the continent. They were influenced by the teaching of Humanists who had re-examined the medieval concept of the four humours, of which an individual's personality was thought to consist, through their revised interpretations of Plato's philosophy. Melancholy became a fashionable state of mind and much of the portraiture of the period reflects this. The same ideas are also prevalent in much of the literature of the day. Sir Roy Strong comments 'There is more than an element of intellectual snobbery in men who should want to be painted for posterity in such a way' (op.cit., p.297).
One of the earliest known examples of melancholy in an English portrait is the full-length of Sir Robert Sidney (now in the collection of Mrs. Julian Salmond). The costume and attitude of the sitter in that portrait, which is datable to circa 1585, is reminiscent of this portrait. The similarity is striking - black dress, a large black hat with floppy rim, folded arms with the sitter standing in solitude, musing amidst a forest glade, with a besieged city beyond. In the present portrait the sitter seems similarly resigned to the unpredictable and often cruel ways of the world. Not even the burning houses or sinking ships in the background seem to shock him. The inscription which translates 'nothing surprises me' seems to say it all.